Competing legislative events tell us a lot about the state policy debate
The North Carolina General Assembly returned to Raleigh this week to deal with a hodgepodge of election/redistricting issues as well as a number of potential veto overrides. This week, only the Senate is in active mode. At other times, it may only be the House. Apparently, lawmakers will be coming and going over the next three weeks.
As a kind of kick-off to the new session, activists convened a pair of competing rallies outside the Legislative Building yesterday.
One (the Respect & Protect Our Right to Vote Rally) was called by the good government advocates at Democracy North Carolina and their allies in the HK on J coalition. Its purpose was protest the plan of legislative Republicans to attempt an override of the Governor’s veto of House Bill 351 – the proposal to push North Carolina into a tiny group of states that have adopted ultra-stringent, mandatory photo ID requirements for voting. Activists also came out to protest Senate Bill 47 – a catchall proposal floated in the waning days of the main legislative session that included a host of voter suppression proposals.
The other event was called by 2008 Republican gubernatorial candidate (and 2012 frontrunner) Pat McCrory and his theoretically nonpartisan supporters at the North Carolina office of the group Americans for Prosperity. This event was billed as a rally to support the efforts of Senate Republicans to override the Governor’s vetoes of a handful of bills on several subjects – from environmental protection to the rights of North Carolina Association Educators members to have dues deducted from their paychecks.
Two very different events
Not surprisingly, the two events were dramatically different (and instructive) in many respects. The Democracy NC – HK on J event was what one might expect from a group of organizations with their roots in the civil rights, anti-corporate and peace movements. Despite a blistering mid-day sun, roughly 150 activists of all ages and races (many wearing red) did their best to gather close to a makeshift stage on a low concrete wall in front of the Legislative Building. Many tried to seek refuge under a pair of modest-sized shade trees. Propped against the wall were photos of a handful of average people (e.g. a senior, a student, disabled person) who are representative of the hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians that a mandatory photo ID requirement would likely disenfranchise.
Speakers were numerous and diverse – teenagers and college student interns, Democracy NC staffers like the state’s leading nonpartisan good government advocate, Bob Hall (the man who led the fight to bring down former Democratic Speaker Jim Black) and, of course, the state’s preeminent activist clergyman, Rev. William Barber of the NAACP. Standing conspicuously next to the “stage” was a grim-looking member of the legislative Sergeant-at-Arms staff – seemingly anxious to enforce a legislative edict that demonstrators stay off the broad sidewalk area in front of the main entrance to the building (and, presumably, to shadow the movements of Rev. Barber).
Meanwhile, out back of the Legislative Building, in the very middle of the giant, grassy and shade-free field that stands amidst an array of sterile state government buildings, a group of 60 or so McCrory-AFP activists (many in black tee shirts featuring an unflattering likeness of the Governor) gathered around an inflatable, red contraption designed to resemble an oil derrick with black streams of crude shooting out the top. The apparent intended symbolism was to laud the benefits of a “drill, baby, drill” energy policy and to push a pair of bills vetoed by Perdue that would loosen state environmental regulations and thereby, according to the protesters, promote more oil and gas drilling in the state.
The crowd was exclusively white and, save for what appeared to be a handful of interns from local conservative groups, mostly gray-haired. Speakers were less numerous than at the other event – chief AFP barker Dallas Woodhouse, a couple of far right legislators and a pair of spokespeople from the Locke Foundation and Pope-Civitas Institute. Despite helping to spearhead the event and voicing a large robocall effort, McCrory was a conspicuous no-show. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger came trudging out from the Legislative Building trailed by a couple of staffers to join the event but arrived after the relentless heat had already caused the crowd to melt away. He seemed relieved. No security officers were evident.
All in all, the two gatherings could scarcely have been much different.
One event was a diverse gathering dedicated to promoting broader participation in government while the other was a corporate-funded, outdoor lecture about the evils of government interference in the profits and practices of corporations.
But lest one get the impression that the democracy activists had it over their conservative rivals in each and every way, it’s also worth noting that there were a few other differences.
As always seems to be the case with progressive rallies and press conferences, the democracy event started late and went too long. Speakers were too numerous and droned on about too many subjects – especially given the extreme weather. The event also lacked any kind of prominent public official headliner.
In contrast, the pro-corporate event was on time, fairly brief and focused on the topics blessed by the organizers. Though less numerous, the conservative ralliers managed to finish in time to buttonhole Senators and fill up the Senate gallery in anticipation of the override votes they were present to champion. The democracy event, in contrast, was still listing toward its conclusion at the same time that Senators were already in session and holding votes.
Making sense of the differences
None of these latter comments are meant necessarily as criticisms of the democracy event or its organizers, who did a great job under challenging circumstances. When your organization and supporters are diverse and broadly-based, they’re harder to herd and control. That’s just the way it is; real democracy is messy. Moreover, because the main issues targeted by the democracy folks were not on the Senate agenda on Wednesday, there was less of a reason to rush the event to conclusion so that attendees could lobby their lawmakers.
Ultimately, what both the strengths and shortcomings of the two events show us is this:
Modern conservatives are often good at winning short-term battles; they’re more homogenous and reliably obedient to their leaders. Witness the spectacle of people turning out in 97 degree heat at the behest of a politician to stand in front of blow-up oil derrick to protest legislation governing administrative rules.
Progressives, however, seem built for the long haul. They may march to the beat of several different drummers, be less partisan (or at least less-connected to a political party), and less homogenous and easily organized, but their diversity, youth and bottom-up spirit will make them hard to stop.
All of which may explain why conservative legislative leaders are trying to move so fast to ram through so many controversial proposals this year; it seems likely that even they suspect that their days in power are numbered.